OSCAR's offices are based at Redcliffe College, a mission training college where I studied. So I always really enjoy seeing old friends return for visits and catching up on what they have been doing in the country they've been called to. It can be challenging too: How do we catch up on three years in a few hours? What is best to focus on? Then, of course, there's dealing with the inevitable 'goodbyes' once again.
Every missionary is unique and a person in their own right. Thus any attempt to find a 'one-size fits all' recipe would be unhelpful, not to mention insensitive. However, I enlisted the help of some of my missionary friends within the online OSCARactive community to ask them for their own insights. I used common threads to create this article of ideas on how to make the experience easier and more helpful for both parties.
My thanks go to the following people for their contributions:
- Tim Herbert, Director of Syzygy
- Sue, Speech Therapist, served in several different countries around the world, now settled in the UK
- Anne Lapage, Teacher, Tanzania
- Claudia Smith, Counsellor, Uganda
Why is it so difficult?
Before looking into ways of helping the situation let's outline what the main difficulties are. Sue sets the scene.
"It can be very hard to know how to best use the brief time you have with friends visiting whilst on home assignment. From my own experience (both as mission partner on home leave and 'home friend') it can be an awkward time full of mixed emotions. Will they understand what life has been like for me in the last few years? Will they have changed a great deal? Will they still want to be friends? How will our friendship have changed? How can I support them best?"
What to do?
The time you spend with your Mission Partner is precious so it may be good to think through what to do together before you meet. Tim suggests doing "anything you used to do together, so that you can reconnect around the familiar. Choose their hobby rather than yours. Although be aware that a night at the movies might help you bond but won't give you an opportunity for talking."
"I'd love to see your photos"
A mission partner recently visited me. Conscious they had been doing many presentations I restrained from asking them to bring photos, in case they were weary of showing them. After they'd gone I regretted making the presumption instead of simply asking them if they were up for it. I have gleaned that mission partners are often keen to share their photos, but what sometimes holds them back from taking the initiative is the concern of boring you.
Claudia expressed how encouraging she found it when people said "'Let's look at your photos after dinner'. It's really nice to be able to share and explain in a bit more detail with supporters who really want to know the details. It shows the mission partner you 'really' are interested."
Many Mission Partners may not have had many people take a keen interest in their work, especially if their wider family and many of their friends are not mission-minded Christians.
Ask questions such as... What is the food like? Are there things you can't get in 'Kilala' that you miss? What's your home/neighbourhood like? What is it like living in 'Kampala'? What's good? What's not so great? How is the language learning? How have you found making friends? How do you relax?
Show you care about them, their work, the people they're working with
Tim pointed out that "returning mission workers have so much to say, but people are busy and occupied with other things, and don't share their passion for mission work. This really demoralises mission workers because it tells them that people don't really value them or their work. Show you care about them, their work, the people they're working with. Memorise details from their newsletters so that you can ask intelligent questions."
Taking off excess focus
Your mission partner has been through changes but so have you. As your friend they will want to chat about changes in your own life. Although it may not seem that much has happened here at home, mission partners often find they have missed out on so much that they are struggling to restore friendships when they return home.
One of Anne's experiences of being on home assignment has been an eagerness to "feel ordinary and blend." Being included in a group activity may help. Anne also highlighted the fact that fashions will have changed too - so some might really enjoy a clothes shopping trip together!
Claudia highlighted the value of the simple things "Just talking about life in general, how the family was and just being normal without lots of questions was actually quite refreshing and relaxing."
Tim suggests some mission partners appreciate you introducing them to your friends whom they don't know. "It will widen their circle of acceptance, and tell them you appreciate them."
Listen, listen, listen
Sue encourages supporters to "listen, listen, listen!!". Mission partners often feel the need to work through some of the experiences, stresses and strains they have been through over the last few months or years. This is particularly important at the beginning or end of a home assignment. A good friend can help. Often people who say something like "How was Africa?" will then proceed to tell you everything they know about Africa! (despite the fact you live in a tiny village in that huge continent). It is refreshing to spend time with someone who will just let you tell your story and offload."
How is it really?
Whilst on the field, writing prayer letters when going through a low patch is difficult. A distribution list is often large and aimed at supporters. Your mission partner may not feel able to express to all of them how they really feel, especially if it's along the lines of "I'm tired, lonely, fed up, God feels distant and right now I just want to pack it all in!"
Claudia suggests a one to one meet up can be a helpful opportunity to ask 'how is it really?' This gives mission partners the opportunity to just say it like it is, should they need to.
How deep you go will depend on the strength of your relationship. Claudia makes the suggestion that if you know that someone has been through a tough time (perhaps someone close to them has died while they were away, or something equally awful), you can always acknowledge that you are aware of the situation and ask how they are feeling. It can be refreshing to be with someone who doesn't mind talking about the messy stuff - although be prepared with the tissues. Tim says, "You might find it hard work if people are emotional, or seem to have changed and you don't understand where they're coming from, but persevere with it."
Saying 'Goodbye, see you in 3 years!'
This is the bit I dread. There is no easy way but it is healthy to say goodbye well. Acknowledge the strangeness of the goodbye. "Long tearful goodbyes are not helpful," says Sue, "Big hugs, for me speak volumes, and then follow ups by texts/emails saying something along the lines of 'I really enjoyed our time together, it'll make my prayers for you feel more real.'"
Tell your friend you will miss them, ask how you can support them. You may be in the position to offer to help clean out the house they are leaving. Talk about ways you'll keep in touch. Think realistically about the commitment you can make before you tell them. It could be funding, advocating, sending emails, a card/letter sent in the post, a British food parcel (chocolate, marmite & tea), or the occasionally phone call, or praying for them. If it is a true friendship it will be mutually supportive, so do ask your mission partner friend to pray for something you've shared.
Don't feel overwhelmed
Finally, don't feel overwhelmed with responsibility or guilt about not knowing what to say. Sue reassures: "The fact that you gave time to be with them is the most important thing. This meeting will make your email/phone call/letter friendship over the coming years all the more real."